Turtlelog No. 7, www.TheGreatStory.org

Pilgrimages to Sacred Sites
of the Epic of Evolution

During our travels in North America, we have the opportunity (sometimes planned, sometimes serendipitous) to visit what might be called "sacred sites of the Epic of Evolution." Four are mentioned and pictured below (other awesome sacred sites we recently visited — Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Mesa Verde — will be reported on later).
  • visiting the Passenger Pigeon Monument dedicated by Aldo Leopold

  • experiencing Archaean habitats at Yellowstone National Park

  • witnessing the most endangered conifer species in the world in Florida

  • touching the fossil skeleton of an ancestral whale

  • 1. Wisconsin's "Monument to the Passenger Pigeon"

        Aldo Leopold, one of America's great conservationists of the early 20th century, is a hero for Connie. In 2002, soon after we began touring the continent telling The Great Story, Connie had a chance to visit Aldo's "shack" in southern Wisconsin, whence come many of the anecdotes and insights portrayed in his deep-ecology classic, A Sand County Almanac. In August 2003, we made sure to visit the site, where the Wisconsin River flows into the Mississippi, at which Aldo was present to dedicate a monument to the once-plentiful and now extinct Passenger Pigeon. "On a Monument to the Passenger Pigeon" is, in fact, Connie's favorite essay in Sand County.

    Connie was astonished that Wayalusing State Park did not make the monument a more prominent draw in its interpretive guides. And she encourages anyone living in the midwest to consider that any landform called "Pigeon River" or "Pigeon Point" was named not for the pigeons we encounter in city parks but for the migrating masses that prowled our deciduous forests in quest of acorns and beechnuts. Above is a photo of Connie reading Aldo's essay aloud at the pigeon monument.

    2. Archaean Encounter at Yellowstone

        Thirty-three summers after having cleaned (now-nonexistent) cabins at Fishing Bridge site in Yellowstone, as her first job out of high school, Connie returned as a tourist with a mission: to witness the hotsprings bacteria with an eye for the Archaean Era of Earth history. (This was Michael's first-ever vist to Yellowstone.) While there, we made a pilgrimage off the beaten track to the exact pool where Thermophillus aquaticus was discovered (right). Both of us, lying down on the warm, bare soil nearby to feel the heat, smell the sulfurous fumes, and plunge back perhaps 3.5 billion years in time.    

    3. Ice Age Refuge: Apalachicola State Park, Florida

    While working on her 2001 book, The Ghosts of Evolution, Connie developed a fondness and a deep concern for Torreya taxifolia, an evergreen member of the yew family whose genus harks back to the Jurassic and was probably browsed by long-neck dinosaurs. Since the end of the Ice Ages, the Florida torreya has been stuck in a small "pocket refuge" of rich-soils that cloak the cool slopes and ravines of the east shore of the Apalachicola River, just west of Tallahassee Florida. Interglacial and greenhouse warming have weakened the trees in their Florida habitat to such an extent that mature trees no longer exist (see photograph below of an ailing, flopped-over tree, with Steve Urse for scale). Instead, sprouts keep growing up from old rootstock, only to be taken down by fungal pathogens before any seeds develop. Were it not for healthy, adult trees growing in botanical gardens to the north, there would be no hope for species recovery.

    Connie revisited the Apalachicola preserve in February 2004, followed by a trip to the Atlanta Botanical Garden to witness the "potted orchard" of now seed-producing clones of the struggling Florida individuals, and culminating in a visit to the Biltmore Gardens in Asheville NC, home to the world's only thriving "grove" of T. tax (close-up photograph of healthy leaves, above, was taken at the Biltmore). Scheduled Great Story presentations in Knoxville TN then gave her an opportunity to visit with Professor Hazel Delcourt, an expert on how America's eastern deciduous forests migrated north as the glaciers receded, and to peruse a possible site on private land for "rewilding" Torreya to the Cumberland Plateau. Along the way, she has been cultivating an internet "conversation cafe" with botanists, ecologists, and fieldworkers on the cutting edge of this demanding issue in conservation biology.

    Overall, anyone who loves the deciduous trees and herbs of the great Eastern Deciduous Forest of the United States should occasionally remember (when admiring a towering Tulip Tree or the large blossoms of a magnolia) to be thankful for North America's premier Ice Age Refuge down in the Panhandle of Florida. Without this safe haven during the cold times, we might have lost these and other beloved native trees.

    Note: Soon after the 2004 entry, above, Connie Barlow created a new website: TorreyaGuardians.org. Then, in 2008, she and fellow Torreya Guardians undertook the first assisted migration of 31 Torreya taxifolia seedlings to the mountains of North Carolina.

    4. The Type Specimen of an Ancestral Whale

    Within the past ten years, new fossil finds have made the early whale lineage one of the best examples of the workings of evolution — in this case, from a four-legged land mammal of the early Cenozoic into a formidable sea carnivore and thenceforth into both carnivorous and planktivorous modern forms. Connie was thrilled to discover that our host and church organizer in Akron Ohio, Debra-Lynn Hook, had invited for dinner the paleontologist Hans Thewissen, who made one of the most important paleontological discoveries of the 20th century, and who still had in his laboratory the bones of the type specimen of Ambulocetus, the "walking whale." Hans graciously granted Connie a tour of his lab. There she had an ecstatic encounter with one of the most precious fossil skeletons in the world, stored in disassembled form in sturdy drawers (photograph above).

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